By Wendy Swanson
Sunday, May 23, 2021
Lincoln Group member Duane Hills was responsible for the installation of an historical marker honoring the memory of Willie and Abraham Lincoln in Oak Hill Cemetery's Carroll Mausoleum.
What ignites in someone a passion for history and a hunger to explore happenings from the past? For Lincoln Group member Duane Hills, his spark of inspiration came from his fourth-grade teacher Norma Doud who, like many teachers of the time, provided her students with the opportunity to explore and absorb the content of “Our Weekly Reader.” Remember that periodical? If not, this was a publication geared toward grade-school students to keep them informed of current events. The particular article that caught young Duane’s attention covered the reopening of Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.
His journey to study the Lincoln story had begun.
Originally from Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania, Hills became a licensed funeral director in New York State in 1979. He has practiced in New York, Texas and, for the past 9 years, here in Washington, where he is currently the president of Joseph Gawler’s Sons on Wisconsin Avenue, NW. Once in the Washington, he knew he wanted to devote free time to exploring “all things Lincoln.” His chosen profession provided him with a gateway to do just that regarding one of the most poignant episodes of the Lincoln presidency.
From his readings on Lincoln, Hills was well acquainted with the details of Willie Lincoln’s passing and of the use of the Carroll Mausoleum in Oak Hill Cemetery as the holding site for his remains. The plan at the time was for Willie to lie in repose at that location until the time Lincoln’s term in office ended and the family returned to Springfield. Willie’s remains then would accompany them to Illinois for burial. Of course, Lincoln’s assassination altered those plans. The funeral train to Springfield carried the remains of both the slain Lincoln and his son.
Having seen a picture of the front of the mausoleum, Hills knew that he wanted to visit the location and he had the necessary cemetery connections to do so. When he finally was standing in front of the structure, he “found something was off.” The site showed nothing to commemorate the Lincoln-related events that had occurred there; that this was a temporary holding spot for Willie’s remains as well as the location visited by a grieving father, a personage no less than the country’s leader. Hills vowed to correct this oversight. Desiring to play a role in telling this story, he approached cemetery officials with the idea of placing a historical marker at the site. As a result of Hills’ efforts, a marker, one that included language from Lincoln’s eulogy for his deceased son, was installed at the mausoleum on January 8, 2016. Now cemetery visitors - through that marker and information included in the site brochure - experience the story Hills wanted to share, that of the loss of a son and the sorrow of his father.
Duane Hills has written on article on his initiative that will appear in the summer edition of The Lincolnian, the quarterly newsletter of the Lincoln Group of D.C. He has researched the events associated with the loss of Willie and provides details on the embalming process, the funeral service and the selection of the holding site. Most touching are the descriptions of the visits at the cemetery by President Lincoln with his deceased son. Readers also will learn of the memento from the funeral reserved for Willie’s grief-stricken mother and of the chair placed to accommodate Lincoln himself on his calls. The author tells of his own efforts - and success - in providing an historical narrative of an important but long-neglected Lincoln site.
Meanwhile, ever the history buff, Duane Hills is currently working on a book concerning the history of Gawler’s in the Nation’s Capital.
Our thanks go to Duane Hills for turning his passion into action to share this part of the Lincoln story with the visitors to Oak Hill Cemetery.
The Lincolnian newsletter is a benefit afforded members of the Lincoln Group of D.C. To join our organization – and to read Duane Hills’ article this summer – go to the “join now” button on our website Lincolnian.org.
Photo Credit: Kennedi Syphax